Bush says alliance with Pakistan is strong despite Musharraf's power grab

Friday, August 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush says the United States will maintain its anti-terrorism alliance with Pakistan despite moves by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to expand his authority.

Bush said Thursday that Musharraf is ``still tight with us'' in terms of fighting terrorism, and he wants to keep it that way because Musharraf's government has proved effective in capturing Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who fled to Pakistan from Afghanistan.

``The United States and our coalition and friends have pulled in over a couple of thousand of them. And there's another couple of thousand who weren't quite so lucky,'' Bush told an audience in Oregon. ``You'll see some action in Afghanistan because there's still some spots where they feel like they can bunch up. But we've got some brave souls on the ground there chasing them down.''

Musharraf announced several steps this week that would allow him to dissolve the elected parliament and appoint military leaders and Supreme Court justices. He also extended his stay in office by another five years. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a political rival, called on the United States to speak out against Musharraf's actions.

Musharraf, a military general, seized power in 1999 through a bloodless coup. The United States initially regarded him as a pariah, but Musharraf turned that around after Sept. 11 by cutting support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and joining the anti-terror effort.

Bush said U.S. officials would ensure that Musharraf is aware of the importance of restoring civilian rule. But he also stressed that Musharraf ``understands that we've got to keep al-Qaida on the run. ... And I appreciate his strong support.''

While Bush stated loyalty to Musharraf, the State Department expressed strong reservations about the constitutional changes in Pakistan. U.S. officials are worried that Musharraf's changes ``could make it more difficult to build strong democratic institutions,'' said State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker.

Musharraf is being urged to allow fair national and provincial elections next month in the hope that he will see that as a chance to build contacts with elected leaders, Reeker said.

``We've made quite clear that part of the war on terrorism includes looking for democracy, because where there's democracy there's less opportunity for extremist and terrorist enterprises to thrive,'' Reeker said.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is due to arrive in Islamabad on Saturday to talk with Musharraf about the constitutional changes, Reeker said.

Reeker would not address the changes Musharraf announced, but rejected suggestions that the United States deliberately looks past some of Musharraf's actions because of his anti-terror work.